By Cuisine8 Minutes
February 12, 2022By Cuisine

Wherever you journey in New Zealand, you’re never far from some great wine, says STEPHEN WONG, MW.

Now that we are in the fourth decade of New Zealand’s modern wine era, most of today’s drinkers might find it hard to imagine a time when wine was only produced in the North Island, dominated by greater Auckland, Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne. Then, the wines were largely fortified, before shifting to cabernet sauvignon and a short flirtation with Müller-Thurgau. Today, New Zealand is overwhelmingly associated with refreshingly crisp cool-climate varieties: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir. Our most-famed wine regions, Central Otago and Marlborough, were largely free of vines merely 35 years ago. As you venture around the country this summer, chances are high that you’ll end up in or near one of our wine regions. Below are some tips on how to take advantage of what each region does best, so you don’t fill up precious packing space taking wine styles you can source locally.

One thing you can be certain of if you’re travelling anywhere in New Zealand, is to leave chardonnay off your packing list. Every region makes their own version, from Auckland’s iconic Kumeu River or Neudorf in Nelson, to Gisborne’s soft, plush style, the flinty, modern versions of Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, or the racy, restrained wines of North Canterbury, Central Otago and Martinborough.

And if you’re headed to Wellington or the South Island, don’t you dare pack any pinot noir either. This is major pinot territory, with each region covering the bases from everyday drinking styles to absolute top-notch examples.

With a clutch of small wineries stretching from the Waimea Plains up the Moutere Hills and down towards Ruby Bay, sunny Nelson ripens grapes with ease. Because its climate suits such a wide range of grapes, there is much to discover here despite lacking a ‘signature’ variety. Chardonnay claims the qualitative high points, but plenty of enjoyment can be had with albariño, pinots noir and gris, even syrah and cabernet franc. There’s also a growing community of natural wineries that can supply pét nat, orange wine and piquette.

Marlborough, with 75% of New Zealand’s vineyards, is the engine of our wine industry, almost all planted within the Wairau and Awatere valleys. Holidaymakers, however, tend to cluster nearby, in the breathtaking Marlborough Sounds. While nothing is more classic than freshly caught kaimoana with Marlborough sauvignon blanc, objectively speaking sauvignon is not the finest thing that Marlborough can do: méthode traditionnelle, seriously structured pinot noir, a plethora of whites from riesling to chenin blanc to viognier and, excitingly, Rhône-like syrah all surpass the quality of its sauvignon.

From the collapsed caldera of Akaroa to the sheltered hills stretching from Amberley up past Waipara and deep into the limestone hills of Waikari, Canterbury is one of the most exciting wine regions of New Zealand and geologically special. Relatively under the radar, but bursting with innovation, some of the country’s finest chardonnay and pinot noir is grown here with a burgeoning natural wine scene as well. The same can be said for wind-swept, boutique-scaled Wairarapa/Wellington where some of New Zealand’s most iconic pinot noirs are grown and its proximity to Wellington provides more experimental wine with a ready cast of open-minded drinkers.

Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand, is set in magnificent Central Otago. This young region has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the past 25 years, with one variety – pinot noir – indisputably its crown jewel. But sparkling wine is one of its best- kept secrets. The new wave has also established a stronghold with numerous producers using minimal intervention techniques and exploring alternative styles. Adventurous souls will appreciate the likes of Sato, Prophet’s Rock and Mount Edward championing albariño, gamay, chenin blanc, muscat and plenty more.

Northland – the birthplace of New Zealand wine and the location of its first vineyards – is a region of boutique producers who rarely sell outside of their region. The most northerly area, it is planted with warmer varieties such as syrah and the Bordeaux varieties, the wines being generally softer, plusher and occasionally a bit rustic, but nonetheless charming. Now boasting several exclusive luxury estates, rising investment has raised wine quality, too. Around Auckland, Matakana and Clevedon are both within easy reach, but it is Waiheke which is the local vinous playground. With the notable exception of Kumeu River’s hard-to-beat chardonnay, Auckland excels at ripe reds, be they syrah, blends of cabernets and merlot, or even carmenère. Most other varieties made by wineries in the area are transported in from elsewhere.

Gisborne is the most varietally diverse New Zealand wine region, as new varieties are first planted here at the country’s largest grapevine nursery immediately after they clear biosecurity quarantine. The wine industry here was badly hit following the double blow of Marlborough’s grape oversupply in 2008 and the global financial crisis that same year, when the large wineries abandoned the region’s growers to mitigate falling demand and prices. But it is a vinously abundant region with a rich history, boasting both James Millton and the late Denis Irwin as pioneering spirits responsible for leading New Zealand wine to where it is today, so innovation, creativity and resilience are in the region’s DNA. Although not often on the top of the list of exciting New Zealand wine regions, it is worth heading off the beaten path in Gisborne to discover what the next generation are brewing up behind the scenes in the wake of the departed giants.

That leaves sunny Hawke’s Bay with its beaches, hills and markets. Here is the heartland of syrah and the mighty Bordeaux varieties cabernet sauvignon and merlot. A modern wave of tighter, less oaky chardonnay has taken hold here and it has its own ripe, tropical style of sauvignon blanc, plus a growing bunch of new-wave wineries making lighter, cooler-climate wines from gamay, chenin blanc and cabernet franc. The only thing missing so far is great pinot noir.

So there you have it, my quick reference guide for the summer. Take advantage of local knowledge by seeking out shops, cellar doors and independent retailers who celebrate their region’s strengths and hidden gems. With vintage 2022 ripening on the vines, there is no better time to discover what New Zealand produces. Just make sure you do it before harvest kicks off and wineries get too busy to take visitors. ■